During his eight-year stint as Largo High School's defensive coordinator, Matt LePain learned how to lead young athletes to success. This year, LePain took over the head coaching reins of a fellow Pinellas County school, Palm Harbor University High, and he fashioned his message around one fundamental principle.
LePain urged his new team to focus on one word: Believe.
"You are good enough to do it, you just have to believe in yourselves," LePain told his young athletes.
LePain needed to establish that confidence in his players, because Palm Harbor's football history included just one winning record and no playoff appearances in 15 seasons. The new coach got his team to focus on becoming better one day at a time, starting with practice.
"When I got there that first day, I set a goal and said, 'Hey, we will practice on Thanksgiving morning,'" LePain said, indicating to his players that he expected to still be in action during the postseason. "Believe it or not, we ended up getting that opportunity where we could actually practice on Thanksgiving, and they were ecstatic."
Indeed, with that belief serving as the motivation to practice harder, the Hurricanes finished the season 7-5 and earned the school's first playoff berth.
"It was a real nice situation to see kids like that learn how to play together as a group and understand that it takes everyone on the field to learn how to do something right," said LePain said.
For leading his team to a victorious season and advancing to the second round of the Florida High School State Playoffs, LePain not only received praise from his community but also earned the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2011 High School Coach of the Year award.
"I'm that guy that just sits in front of his computer and breaks down film all day long, and when you get noticed by other people, it does mean something, and it is a pretty special moment for me," LePain said.
As Coach of the Year, LePain received $1,000 from the NFL Youth Football Fund to go towards Palm Harbor's football program. Before the Buccaneers kicked off their Saturday night game against the Dallas Cowboys at Raymond James Stadium, LePain was greeted on the sidelines by General Manager Mark Dominik, who presented him with a certificate signed by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Dominik and Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris. LePain also received a personalized Coach of the Year football from the Buccaneers, a nice memento for a season that meant a lot to him on a personal level, beyond the wins and losses.
"This school is just special because when I got there I had a lot of average players that eventually learned how to play better than really what they were," LePain said. "I had a bunch of great kids that really learned how to play hard and how to play together."
The Buccaneers' High School Coach of the Year was chosen from among the 10 High School Coach of the Week winners that were named during the fall. LePain was named the Buccaneers' Coach of the Week for Week Four of the 2011 season after starting off the season with a 3-1 record. He has earned the Hurricanes a total of $2,000 from the Buccaneers on behalf of the NFL Youth Football Fund through the Coach of the Week program.